By Sjoerd Duiker, Penn State soil management specialist
If fields are compacted this fall due to the wet conditions, there are some different strategies that can be taken to correct the problem.
If no ruts are seen, it is probably not necessary to do tillage. Instead, plant a cover crop to use the living root system to alleviate compaction.
Ruts need to be smoothed out to be able to plant the next crop successfully, however. If ruts are uniformly distributed across the whole field, some type of tillage may need to be done on the whole field. In many cases, however, ruts are localized and only need localized repair.
Remember the negative consequences of tillage. It will be necessary to till deeper than the depth of compaction. Shallow “vertical tillage” tools that only do tillage in the top 4 inches will not be sufficient to manage soil compaction. Very tough shanks are needed that will penetrate instead of bounce on top of the compacted layer.
New subsoilers can do maximum fracturing without doing much surface disturbance with straight or bent-leg shanks. Parabolic shanks do much more surface disturbance and will need more secondary tillage for seedbed preparation and are therefore not preferred. Deep tillage may be what you could use in the fall, and then come back in the spring to smoothen the field up with a field cultivator or disk harrow.
However, it may be tough to find the right soil moisture conditions this fall for deep tillage. Deep tillage should fracture the soil and it therefore needs to be performed in relatively dry soil. With the temperatures coming down now the soil is not likely to dry out sufficiently, and it may be necessary to wait until spring to do deep tillage. Deep tillage can be performed in a living cover crop in the spring, if you use the modern, low disturbance subsoilers. Do not let subsoiling deter you from planting a cover crop. The more tillage you do, however, the more you set yourself up for increased compaction problems in the future.